Rediscovering a taste for Chesapeake scallops
Virginia aquaculture company testing market for long-lost Bay shellfish
The Croxton cousins want to do for the Chesapeake Bay scallop what they helped do for its oyster: bring it back from the brink with bivalve farming and some savvy marketing.
That was the idea behind an event last night where the co-owners of Rappahannock Oyster Co. offered an early taste of the Bay scallops they hope to grow into a new commercial product. After successfully cultivating a small crop of the scallops, which take up to six months to become bite-size, Ryan and Travis Croxton hope to begin selling the shellfish at their four restaurants and elsewhere in the fall.
“They’ve been extinct (in the Bay) since 1933,” Travis Croxton said at the event. “We just found that out a couple years ago and thought—we love scallops, we love the Chesapeake Bay, let’s reintroduce them.”
The work they heard about was that of scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who have been quietly restoring a small Bay scallops population at their Gloucester Point facility since the late 1990s.
Eastern Shore watermen enjoyed a vibrant scallop fishery in the 1920s, harvesting about 1 million pounds annually. But a 1933 hurricane was thought to have wiped out the eelgrass beds they called home.
The Croxtons’ pitch about reviving a shellfish that disappeared from the Bay almost a century ago was enough to lure several food writers to the cousins’ Union Market oyster bar in Northeast Washington for a taste.
The Bay scallops offered for tasting come across as slightly sweeter and much smaller than those typically found in a supermarket or restaurant. Rappahannock Oyster Co. served them raw on the perfectly symmetrical half-shell with a rhubarb and ginger mignonette, and grilled with a garlicky pesto.
Notably, unlike traditional scallops, these were served with their innards intact—much like an oyster on the half-shell— so that their signature white coin of meat was barely visible beneath gray sinews.
“These are so good, you can eat the whole thing,” Croxton assured.
Unlike the oysters and clams the Rappahannock company was accustomed to growing, the scallops had a habit of swimming away from where they were planted and couldn’t survive for long outside the water. Croxton said they used oyster cages to contain them but didn’t consider at first that the scallops were light enough for birds to pick them up and shatter them on the docks for a snack.
“We killed a lot of scallops figuring it out,” Croxton said.
It took the Rappahannock company a while to figure out how to raise the shellfish and protect them from predators.
But now that they know how to grow a good crop, the Croxtons are spreading the word in advance of their October debut.
“The idea is to raise interest and tell the story, the same way we did with aquaculture oysters 15 years ago,” Travis Croxton said.
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